Sinai Says: How a national institution is withering away

It wasn't that long ago that Maccabi Tel Aviv was one of the quintessential symbols of Israeli pride.

Allon sinai 88 (photo credit: Courtesy)
Allon sinai 88
(photo credit: Courtesy)
It was not that long ago that Maccabi Tel Aviv's basketball team was one of the quintessential symbols of Israeli pride. The likes of Miki Berkowitz, Tal Brody and Doron Jamchi, and later Nadav Henefeld, Doron Sheffer and Oded Katash, inspired and excited what seemed to be an entire nation, and just as importantly were the best ambassadors Israel could have wished for. European success turned Maccabi into a global brand and its name became synonymous with Israeli excellence, just like the country's military triumphs, but without the death and destruction part. So it is especially saddening to see that, for the first time ever, Maccabi is entering a season without a single significant Israeli player on its roster. Tel Aviv, which began training on Tuesday, may well shine in the Euroleague, perhaps even win the competition. However, with its top seven players all foreigners, anything Maccabi achieves this season won't have anywhere near the impact of the accomplishments which enthralled a nation some 30 years ago, most memorably in 1977 when the team won its first European title. For most of the past decade Maccabi's leading players were foreigners, but even then Israel's best had a key role in the team's success. Tel Aviv's Israelis might not have been as dominant as they were 30, 20 or even 10 years ago, but Tal Burstein, Yotam Halperin, Lior Eliyahu and Omri Casspi, were all major players for the team. However, the recent departures of Eliyahu, Casspi and last but not least Burstein, have left Maccabi in an unprecedented and unacceptable position. Yaniv Green, Gal Mekel, Raviv Limonad, Guy Pnini and the naturalized David Bluthenthal and Derrick Sharp give the side a decent core of local players, but none of them are expected to star for the team in European competition and will, at best, have to settle for a minor role in Maccabi's big games. There are many reasons why the flagship club of Israeli basketball has reached its current situation. The lack of up and coming local stars combined with the lure of big money abroad ensured Tel Aviv was in an awkward position to start with. Israel's most vibrant players have gone to play overseas including Eliyahu, who moved to Spanish side Tau Vitoria over the summer, Casspi who found his place at the NBA's Sacramento Kings and Halperin, who has already spent a year at Greece's Olympiakos and will continue next season. However, it is difficult to escape the feeling that the team could have retained the services of Burstein had it really wanted to. There is no doubt the 29-year-old is past his prime, and Maccabi's support for him during his many injury layoffs has been truly admirable. However, during his nine seasons at the club Burstein acted as the glue which turned a group of individual stars into a successful team, something the current side is desperately in need of. Nine of the 13 players who will play for Maccabi in 2009/10 were not even on the roster last season, and the entire starting five lacks any Maccabi experience whatsoever. Burstein could well turn out to have been exactly the player coach Pini Gershon needed to make his quality recruits play as a unit, but the fan favorite and the club failed to reach an agreement. It is likely Maccabi will continue to dominate the local scene as well as flourish on the continental stage for many years to come. However, as long as it does so with no Israeli players of significance, it is like a body without a soul, a shell without substance.